Wednesday 19 April 2017

Kenneth Leighton: The Complete Organ Works

Kenneth Leighton - Complete Organ Works - Resonus Classics
Kenneth Leighton organ works; Stephen Farr, John Butt, Nicky Spence, Chloe Hanslip; Resonus Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 10 2017
Star rating: 4.0

An important and highly involving survey of all of Leighton's music for solo organ

The composer Kenneth Leighton wrote a substantial corpus of organ music and this new three disc set from Stephen Farr (director of music at St Paul's Church, Knightsbridge) on Resonus Classics gives us Leighton's music for solo organ, organ duet (with John Butt), organ and tenor (with Nicky Spence), organ and violin (with Chloe Hanslip), and even throws in Leighton's sole work for harpsichord played by Stephen Farr.

The three discs are arranged in programmes, rather than chronologically, with each disc having at its centre a work where Farr is joined by a second performer. The works were also recorded in different locations with the first and most of the third disc recorded at St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh on the 1992 Rieger organ, and most of the second disc recorded on the 2001 Klais organ at Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Es ist genug for violin and organ from the third disc was recorded on the Henry Willis organ at St Paul's Church, Knightsbridge. The recordings span quite a long period, from September 2013 to April 2016.

The first disc has at its centre, Martyrs: Dialogues on a Scottish psalm tune for organ duet which is played by Farr and Butt, surrounded by Six Fantasies on Hymn Tunes, Improvisation in memoriam Maurice de Sausmarez and Missa de Gloria (Dublin Festival Mass). On the second disc Farr is joined by Spence for These are thy wonders (A song of renewal) surrounded by Festival Fanfare, et Resurrexit (Theme, fantasy and fugue), Veni creator spiritus and Prelude, Scherzo and Passacaglia. Then on the third disc comes Farr and Hanslip's account of Fantasy on a chorale 'Es is genug', surrounded by Paen, Elegy, Ode, Rockingham, Fanfare and Veni Remptor (A celebration) and finishing with Butt's account of the harpsichord piece Improvisations 'De profundis'.

Though Kenneth Leighton was educated as a treble at Wakefield Cathedral, his knowledge of organ writing seems to have been relatively limited, and whilst writing his first work for solo organ, Prelude, Scherzo and Passacaglia (1963) he solicited help from his friend Herrick Bunney (organist of St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh from 1946 to 1996) and showed, to quote Bunney, 'instant mastery of the idiom'.

As can be deducted from the titles of the pieces, hymn tunes, psalmody and chant were at the heart of Leighton's writing for the instrument. But there is nothing pastoral or lightly anachronistic about Leighton's music here. Even a work like Six fantasies on hymn tunes is richly complex with that element of structural toughness familiar from Leighton's compositions in other genres. Whilst the Missa de Gloria is almost entirely inspired by plainsong, and terrific it is too, Leighton embeds the chant firmly into his own voice.

The guests on the disc form an interesting variant on the textures of solo organ. The organ duet, Martyrs: Dialogues on a Scottish psalm tune (premiered by Stephen and Nicholas Cleobury) is remarkably sober and terse, glorying in the complexity possible over its 12 minute length without indulging in any of the showy effects that three manuals and four hands (not to mention four feet) might give you. Nicky Spence is mellifluous in These are thy wonders, the setting of George Herbert's The Flower commissioned in 1981 by tenor Neil Mackie in honour of Peter Pears' birthday. The Fantasy on a Chorale 'Es is genug' for violin and organ, performed by Chloe Hanslip and Stephen Farr, proves highly substantial, lasting 25 minutes. It is a very effective piece of writing for the relatively unusual combination of violin and organ, Hanslip bringing out the lyrical beauty of the sober violin part, and the two combining to perform with sober intensity.

Farr plays the Improvisation 'De profundis' on a copy of the 1769 two-manual Pascal Taskin harpsichord from the Raymond Russell Collection housed in St Cecilia's Hall, Edinburgh. It is not the easiest or most comfortable of works, and the recording rather brings out the edgy, sharp-toned nature of the instrument which emphasises the darkly complex nature of Leighton's writing for the instrument.

Stephen Farr is our admirable guide to the riches of this set, playing with an engaging feel for the structural complexity, tough harmonies and lyricism which is Kenneth Leighton's distinctive voice. All the disc lacks is the organ concerto, so perhaps we might look forward to a follow up.

Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988) - Six Fantasies on Hymn Tunes, Op. 72
Kenneth Leighton - Martyrs: Dialogues on a Scottish Psalm-tune, Op. 73
Kenneth Leighton - Improvisation in Memoriam Maurice de Sausmarez
Kenneth Leighton - Missa de Gloria (Dublin Festival Mass), Op. 82
Kenneth Leighton - Festival Fanfare
Kenneth Leighton - Et Resurrexit (Theme, Fantasy & Fugue), Op. 49
Kenneth Leighton - These are Thy Wonders (A Song of Renewal), Op. 84
Kenneth Leighton - Veni Creator Spiritus
Kenneth Leighton - Prelude, Scherzo and Passacaglia, Op. 41
Kenneth Leighton - Paean
Kenneth Leighton - Elegy
Kenneth Leighton - Ode
Kenneth Leighton - Fantasy on a Chorale ‘Es ist genug’, Op. 80
Kenneth Leighton - Rockingham
Kenneth Leighton - Fanfare
Kenneth Leighton - Veni Redemptor (A Celebration), Op. 93
Kenneth Leighton - Improvisations ‘De profundis’, Op. 76
Stephen Farr (organ, harpsichord)
John Butt (organ)
Nicky Spence (tenor)
Chloe Hanslip (violin)
RESONUS CLASSICS RE10178 3CDs [78.31, 53.16, 76.19]
Available from Amazon.

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